Wilson Details Welfare Changes to Save $550 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson outlined his vision of a new welfare system Thursday, unveiling a comprehensive plan that would save more than $550 million over the next two years, place strict time limits on assistance and use penalties to push recipients into work.

For the first time, the governor also specifically urged counties to offer poor mothers--especially teenagers--adoption as an option, particularly if they could not bring up their child in a safe and secure environment.

More than four months after a new federal welfare reform law gave states broad authority to design their own systems, Wilson presented a formal proposal for restructuring the state's welfare system--one of his most frequent political targets. The pivotal goal of his plan is the movement of hundreds of thousands of adult recipients into the work force.

"We must end a welfare system that reduces the work ethic, discourages marriage and has driven fathers out of the home," Wilson told a Capitol news conference.

The welfare plan was incorporated into a mammoth budget proposal Wilson presented to the Legislature for the financing of state programs in the coming fiscal year.

As part of a section explaining his welfare policies, the governor included directions to counties that almost immediately sparked controversy among child advocacy groups.

He urged county welfare offices to use their resources to advise poor mothers, especially those living in risky environments, that giving up their children for adoption is an alternative they could consider.

"I have said repeatedly that if you are a woman of any age and any income level and are not mature enough, financially stable enough or otherwise did not have the capacity to provide a loving, stable and secure environment for the child, then you should consider alternatives like adoption," Wilson said in a statement released later by his office.

Wilson's budget proposal put forth restrictions on welfare recipients that were in many cases even more severe than those enacted by Congress. Under his plan, the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program would be replaced by a new state-designed substitute that would be called Caltap--the California Temporary Assistance Program.

To encourage work, the governor recommended, for instance, that newcomers to the welfare system be cut off from benefits after 12 months if the able-bodied adult in the family failed to find work. Those who are receiving assistance now would be cut off after two years if they do not find work.

As an additional incentive, he proposed that in families where the adults did not find work within six months, the benefits would be slashed by 15%.

Penalties also were proposed for welfare mothers who failed to assist government officials in establishing paternity for their children. Until paternity is established, only the children in a family would be eligible for aid, and the entire family would be denied assistance if the mother did not "fully cooperate" with officials.

Responding to complaints from local governments, he recommended that the Legislature repeal a decades-old state law mandating that counties provide General Assistance, a program that provides small cash benefits to the poor who are not served by other aid programs.

At the same time, Wilson proposed that child care support be increased by $100 million to assist adults in entering the work force and that training and education programs be expanded.

Insisting that children must be protected, he proposed that the counties provide some kind of "noncash" benefits for the children in families where aid to the adults had expired.

He did not specify what form the "noncash" would take and other officials in his administration said that would be left to the counties to decide. They said counties could, for example, use a voucher system or some kind of a debit card that would work much like a credit card, allowing parents to purchase clothing and other necessities for their children.

Wilson said legal immigrants who will lose federal Supplemental Security Income and food stamps should be eligible for state aid, even though it will cost California millions of dollars. However, he said any legal immigrant arriving in the country after last Aug. 22 should not be eligible for aid.

Leaders in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, which must ultimately approve any new welfare plan, were critical of many of Wilson's proposals, calling them harsh and in some instances poorly conceived.

"It appears the governor's proposal tilts unnecessarily toward punishing poor people rather than assisting them," said Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Even with its focus on work, Lockyer said, the governor's plan had actually done little to help recipients find jobs.

"It's easy to have some rigid rule that we're going to cut everybody off after a certain number of months," he said. "It's hard to find work for these people."

Lockyer, one of the chief advocates of shifting the costs of local trial courts to the state, said this may be the right time to reverse the process and give the counties back the entire responsibility for financing their courts. He said the state could in return pick up the costs of local General Assistance.

While not opposed to adoption in general, critics of Wilson's adoption proposal were incredulous that he would target children of low-income women.

"For a child to be willfully given up by his or her parent because there aren't enough resources in the family is nothing short of devastating," said Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of policy for Children Now, the statewide children's advocacy and policy organization in Oakland.

"I can't believe this is the strategy the governor is suggesting to address issues of family economic self-sufficiency."

Wilson's press secretary, Sean Walsh, said the governor had included the adoption directive in his budget proposal because he believed that single mothers were not being made aware of the adoption alternative. He said brochures providing information on adoption services should be made available through welfare caseworkers.

The spokesman said Wilson's interest in adoption had been heightened by a recent visit to a crack cocaine facility where he discovered that one drug-addicted mother had given birth to 11 children. After the birth of the last child, Walsh said, adoption may have been an option that mother should have considered.

Walsh acknowledged that some critics will label the governor's suggestion as "harsh" but Wilson considered it a "very humane concept" that would move children from a potentially dangerous or abusive environment to the loving home of adoptive parents.

"He thinks adoption is a legitimate means of putting a child in the best environment for that child," Walsh said. "And he also believes there should be no stigma against a woman who chooses adoption."

In the budget, Wilson included the reference to adoptions in a list of what he called principles and precepts. "Recipients--especially those who are themselves minor children--should be offered every assistance in placing their children for adoption, recognizing that such a decision is a courageous, wise and ultimately unselfish choice by the parent to give the child a home and opportunity which otherwise cannot be offered," the proposal said.

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wilson on Welfare

A major part of Gov. Pete Wilson's budget plan is saving more than $500 million in welfare costs, mostly by tightening eligibility requirements.

HIGHLIGHTS

* Maximum: Aid limited to five years.

* Other limits: Those now receiving aid limited to cash benefits for 24 months over three years. Newcomers limited to benefits of 12 months over two years.

* Exemptions: Able-bodied adults required to work, except for single parents of disabled children, mothers of infants and relatives serving as caretakers.

* Training: Community college programs will be expanded to help job placement.

* Safety net: "Non-cash safety net"--such programs as vouchers--would help children in families whose eligibility is exhausted.

* Counties: State law requiring counties to provide General Assistance payments eliminated. County block grant underwrites services.

* Fraud: "One strike and you're off" policy would ban those convicted of welfare fraud.

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Share of Aid

County: % of Calif. cases

Los Angeles: 32.8%

San Diego: 7.3%

San Bern.: 7.2%

Orange: 4.4%

Ventura: 1.1%

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Benefits for Families

After growing in the early 1990s, the caseload began shrinking in 1995:

Source: Governor's budget

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